P ost was the commercial genius who built the Postum Cereal Company as one of the major players in the American food reform movement of the late nineteenth century and, incidentally, made a 17-million-dollar fortune. In 1890, Post, a self-taught inventor and salesman, arrived at the Battle Creek sanitarium in Michigan because of his own failing health. The sanitarium was run for the Seventh-day Adventist Church by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. The town had been a major center for religion-based health reform since the arrival of the founders of the Church, James and Ellen Gould White, in the 1850s. During his visit, Post became exposed to the food reform movement and its claims about human health. Here he experienced the use of breakfast cereals as the basis for health therapies, using the double idea of a "modern" health regime with a "religious" foundation.
Here, Post, like all of the cereal manufacturers of the time, followed the lead of Henry Perky (1843-1906) who had developed the "wheat shredding process" and created shredded wheat. Post called on "science" with his advocacy of a "true domestic science" that "should be taught in all our schools" (Perky 1902: 86), but he also condemned American Protestantism with its lack of a strict dietary regime as one of the causes of American ill health. In contrast, he praised the strict regimes of Judaism and Islam for their attention to diet.
Post left the sanitarium after nine months and purchased a farm in Battle Creek, where he began experimenting with grain-based health foods and beverages, which he was introduced to at Kellogg's sanitarium but found almost uneatable due to the bland taste. Post then founded La Vita Inn at Battle Creek. He also advocated a mind cure for bodily illness in his tract I Am Well! The Modern Practice of Natural Suggestion as Distinct from Hypnotic Unnatural Influence (1895), positioning himself in the "New Thought" movement dominated by figures like William James and Mary Baker Eddy, who argued, "Disease is entirely a mental picture" (Post 1895: 4). His views echoed the Social Darwinism of his day, seeing such health advocacy as improving the "race." But underlying all was the need to sell a notion of health. In 1908, he explained,
I studied psychology, dietetics, hygiene and medi cine in this country and Europe. I have been through psychology from the book by Mrs. Eddy to the clinics of Charcot in mental therapeutics at Paris. What we say in our advertising is a popular expression of things I believe to be vitally important to many others.
(Paxson 1993: 36)
By 1895, Post abandoned his foray into mental healing and planned to create an alternative to coffee and tea, as well as to develop a ready-made breakfast cereal that would be enjoyable and affordable. His model here was clearly Kellogg and the Seventh-Day Adventist vegetarian diet, but, unlike them, he rejected a "theological" rationale for the power of his food to heal. This was the triumph of science in the warfare between "theology" and "science" (the title of a major book of 1896 by the historian and President of Cornell, Andrew Dickson White). His food was seen as "modern," as it incorporated arguments about science and evolution in its claims for cure. Post developed and produced his first product, Postum Cereal Beverage, and a caffeine-free coffee substitute. "If Coffee Don't Agree, try Postum," stated the ads. They also pictured "the coffee fiend saved at the last gasp by changing to Postum" (Paxson 1993: 193).
In 1897, Post developed Grape-Nuts, the first cold cereal, and, in 1899, he created a brand of cornflakes, to compete with Kellogg's Corn Flakes®. When he brought his to the market he called it "Elijah's Manna," only changing the name in 1908 to Post Toasties. The outrage by ministers across the country at the appropriation of the biblical name by someone who had little interest beyond marketing caused the change. The Kellogg cereal had been developed by Will Keith Kellogg (1869-1951), who was employed by his older brother at the sanitarium, as an attempt to bring health food to the masses. He received a patent for a corn-flaking process in 1895. In 1906, W.K. Kellogg was excommunicated by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church for adding sugar to his cornflakes in violation of the Church's dietary principles. Post had no such principles.
Post's advertising and marketing was his genius, and yet he too made distinct gestures to the religious culture of Battle Creek. By 1900, Battle Creek was the center of cereal production, but Post and Kellogg dominated the field. Post promoted his products by creating appealing phrases in language he believed appealed to the working class. He demanded that his salesmen "must use plain words, homely illustrations and more or less of the vocabulary of the customer . . . In other words talk to your customer in a way that he will instantly grasp what you have to say, and believe it" (Paxson 1993: 191). As a leader of the National Association of Manufacturers, however, Post took a hard, antilabor line in his conflicts with Samuel Gompers, the labor leader. Labor advocates were, according to him, "mongrels, prostitutes, and the most poisonous enemies of the common people" (Paxson 1993: 203).
Post committed suicide in 1914, and within days the alternative physician E.H. Pratt at a convention of the Illinois Eclectic Medical Society interpreted his death as the result of "intestinal problems" (Paxson 1993: 325). Post might well have agreed with an explanation of mental illness resting on poor food and digestive disorders. Perhaps his life would have been saved had he only stuck to Postum and Grape-Nuts. His only daughter, Marjorie Post, inherited the Post Cereal Company and turned it into one of the most successful and recognizable food brands in the world, General Foods Company. She donated the land for the C.W. Post Campus of Long
Island University, which was founded in 1954, the 100th anniversary of Post's birth.
See also Fat Camp; Ibn Sina; Jews; Kellogg; White
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